What's So Great About More Diversity in Congress? Plenty

We now have unprecedented diversity in our country's leadership through the new 116th Congress. Perhaps many Americans are astounded that we are represented by people of different religions, sexual orientations, places of origin, race and cultures. The number of women alone is noteworthy, at 102. So what's the big deal?I've come to believe that representation really does matter for all of us.My teacher of this lesson was a 13-year-old student from Myanmar. She fled her country due to near-starvation, her sister's death and government persecution. For days she quietly hid on the bottom of a boat, knowing that noisy children were thrown overboard. Still in hiding, she crossed over mountains in Thailand in treacherous conditions to reach a U.N.-sponsored refugee camp in Malaysia. After much waiting, her family arrived in Texas through a refugee settlement organization. She told me very specifically that she wanted to grow up to be speaker of the U.S. House because that would allow her to return to her country and help the starving people.Where did she get that idea?The girl had seen a woman on TV who appeared to be very important, a woman who had authority within a powerful country to help others.This was years ago. The woman was Nancy Pelosi.Just seeing Speaker Pelosi on TV prompted this girl to make plans to graduate as valedictorian, obtain a law degree and pursue a political position in her new country.This girl taught me that representation matters. I believe it matters for us all.Most obviously, representation matters for people who might not regularly see themselves represented in positions of authority. If we see people who look like us in leadership, as teachers in our schools and even in the children's books read to us, we have benefited, albeit often unknowingly. All people need role models to remind them that their voices are important.Representation also matters for parents and teachers. I'm a university professor at an institution with a significant Hispanic population, and I research the teaching of high school immigrants. I want all these students to believe me when I say they can accomplish anything. Yet I know my pathway has been less rocky than theirs might be. Being able to point to modern-day pioneers makes my message more credible. Even as a mother, I made sure that my daughter was tuned in during the 2016 presidential election. I wanted her to know that when I said "anything," that included the presidency.Finally, representation even matters for those who might appear to have an advantage from the way things have always been. Nobody will reach his or her full potential, nor will any nation, if only some voices contribute to decision-making. We truly make one another better with different viewpoints that result from varied experiences. Personally, I benefit from the interactions I have with people different from me in my career, in my personal relationships and simply as a human being. These people challenge me, share new ways of thinking and give me a more accurate view of the world that extends beyond my limited experiences.We all benefit from broader, more accurate representation.Yet, you might ask: Shouldn't we esteem people based solely on their merit, not other characteristics such as gender or race? Consider that some people might need even greater qualifications and courage to be trailblazers than others need to follow well-trod paths. That cannot be ignored.Now, years later, I hope that 13-year-old girl from Myanmar saw her inspiration, Speaker Pelosi, accept the gavel, as well as the swearing-in of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who also came to the U.S. as a refugee.Mandy Stewart is an associate professor in the Department of Reading at Texas Women's University. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.  Continue reading...

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